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Buying chocolate for strangers: A final conversation with polyamory rights activist Erez Benari

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Erez Benari — Courtesy photo
Erez Benari — Courtesy photo

By the time this article goes to print, its subject will have shed this mortal coil.

Erez Benari, former Microsoft engineer, journalist, co-founder of MENSA Israel, and active member of the Seattle area's LGBTQ+ and polyamorous communities, was ill. Ongoing struggles with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and chronic kidney disease caused him many months of pain. He chose to end his life by way of euthanasia, surrounded by his loving partners, on Sunday, November 6.

Benari spoke with me on November 4.

A pretty great life
Erez Benari was born in Haifa, Israel. "I was a pretty normal guy. Normal family. I grew up and joined the military like everyone does. They had me working with explosives, so I like to think I'm pretty calm."

He studied chemistry, but his career quickly moved into tech, first as a printer repair and IT specialist, and eventually as a Microsoft engineer. Benari was employed at Microsoft for 19 years and was even featured in Geek Wire and Gizmodo.

"I always wanted to move to America. It's kind of the Israeli dream," he said. In 2008, he won the Israeli green card lottery and moved to the Pacific Northwest with his now ex-wife.

For years, the otherwise accomplished engineer felt he lacked that feeling of belonging. "Ultimately, I think everybody wants a community. Everybody wants to belong to something."

He added, "I've always been on the lookout for my own community... which is why I started MENSA Israel with Frank Luger. We did that for about four years and grew a fairly large org, and then I had to go to America. I believe it still exists under different leadership.

"When I moved to America, I tried to join the Jewish community, which is pretty large and flourishing, but that didn't quite align, because I'm not religious."

In 2016, Benari finally found what he called his "people" — the Puget Sound sex-positive community. "Not because of the sex," he explained, "but because that community draws the highest-quality people. They are intelligent, caring, loving, gentle, enlightened, progressive, liberal — all the good things you can find in a person, and I'd never felt more held. I was a stranger in a strange land, and I'd never felt more welcome."

In the years following, Benari worked to build up and expand his found family and work for polyamory's acceptance. He was a founding member the Polyamory Foundation, a nonprofit that gives grants to polyamory rights activists and organizations, where he served as a board member.

He also founded and hosted events for Hugz and Cuddlez, the nonsexual cuddle group that garnered media attention as COVID restrictions were lifted. The weekly events are intended to promote the healing power of touch and positive attitudes toward mental health awareness. The organization holds the Guinness World Record for largest group cuddle event ever recorded.

Benari expressed great pride in the community he'd helped foster, citing his polycule as a good example. "My boyfriend met his other boyfriend at one of my events."

"I don't think, of course, that polyamory is the only way, but I think it's a pretty good way. I think it's important to know people have options. Relationships are a spectrum," Benari mused. "I feel like I've always needed more love than one person can give and had more love to give than one person can take."

With all the love he felt, one could wonder why Benari chose to end his life with the aid of specialists. His answer? It was time.

"My life has been pretty great. I've had a good 49 years. But it's reached a point where my illness is too debilitating, and there's a lot of pain."

Choosing to die with dignity
"I am stressed out to some degree, but I'm looking forward to relief. The last few weeks, I've been in pain pretty much constantly," he said.

Benari's medical issues, while not new, became overwhelming in 2021. When he learned that his kidneys were failing, he started to plan. "Knowing I have a date is a comfort. Not a good type of comfort, but I won't have to suffer any more. I've had enough of that."

Washington's Death with Dignity Act went into effect on March 5, 2009. The idea behind it is that those suffering from a terminal illness should have the right to determine when to end their lives. End of Life Washington's slogan says it succinctly: "Your life. Your death. Your choice."

"I'm very happy to be living in a state with a progressive policy like this one," Benari said.

Washington is one of six states to pass a Death with Dignity Act since 1997, and the movement is growing. According to the website of the nonprofit Death with Dignity, seven in ten Americans support the right of people with terminal illnesses to die on their own terms.

These jokes are killer
Benari chose to enact his right to end his life instead of prolonging his suffering and that of those around him. In his final weeks, however, he told me he was able to find moments of levity in the darkness. Among the many hats he's worn over the years, Benari once moonlighted as a stand-up.

"I did comedy for fun, but a lot of people think of me as a comedian in nature," he said. "I find humor in everything, and of course in death and what's around it, I've found humor everywhere."

Benari recounted a time last month when he purchased a bottle of Advil. "It comes with 40 pills in it. I thought, 'Oh, cool. Lifetime supply.'" We shared a dry chuckle.

Benari stopped briefly to take some blood pressure medication before continuing. "I told that joke to my doctor, and he said, 'You're killing me.' I had to correct him. I said, 'No, it's actually the other way around."

He also found comfort in his polycule, he said, and their support.

"My partners and I all have a similar sense of humor, sort of sarcastic, so we can laugh about that shit. It's wild, man. I could fill a two-hour set with death stuff."

It takes a village
Benari had nine partners. "One boyfriend and eight girlfriends," he clarified. "It's a very large polycule. All of us have at least one other partner. Sometimes four or five.

"I've always said the key to success is not communication but a Google calendar."

"They're all smart, progressive, people," he said of his partners. "Each of them responded differently, depending on their personality... but I tried to do this all very gently."

Benari took a moment to reflect on how beneficial a polyamorous relationship structure had on the quality of his end-of-life care. Not only were his partners taking care of him, but their partners and friends pitched in as well.

"They've been caring for me 24/7 since I've become bedridden. It's one of the most incredible things I've ever seen," he said.

"It takes a village, and I have a village."

Legacy of love
While many people find themselves searching for God at the end of their lives, Benari remained a staunch atheist.

"I don't believe in an afterlife. I do believe that my life has a lot of purpose to it. I found purpose in life rather than look toward an afterlife. That's the reason I've done so many things. You only get one chance."

Knowing he was facing the void, a question surfaced: Did he feel good about his 49 years on this Earth?

The answer was immediate.

"Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. While it is somewhat tragic that I'm dying young, if I look back, it's the opposite of unfair. I've had so many opportunities. I did it all. I did stuff for myself, and I did a lot of good stuff for others. I was never selfish, and I got everything that I wanted and much, much more. Jobs, girlfriends, love, toys, accessories. I had two racecars. I learned to fly airplanes. I've done nearly everything a man could ever hope for or imagine, both for myself and everybody else. It's a life of accomplishment and achievement."

The next question, the final question, came naturally: What impact did he hope to have on the world after his passing?

"For me, life is about love. It's about finding and sharing and giving love. If you do it right, love multiplies and cascades... You don't have to be a millionaire to do something, and you don't have to spend your whole life [pursuing it]. There are so many teeny tiny things you can do to just give a little bit of joy."

Erez Benari left me with a final example of what he hoped for in the world.

"When I go to the supermarket," he said, "and I buy my groceries, at the end of the checkout line, I buy a couple of the small chocolates they have for sale there for a dollar, and then I give one to the cashier, one to the person in front of me, and one to the person behind me, and I ask them, 'Please, have a sweet day on me.'

"It costs almost nothing, and now this person here has a chocolate...Maybe sometime later that day, or maybe he'll think to himself at night, 'Y'know what? The world is not such a terrible place. Maybe the next day, he'll buy someone a chocolate and spread that joy. I choose to believe that's what happens."

Editor's note: This article was originally published with a section entitled "Regrets" that has since been removed from the online edition at the request of the deceased's family.